Rising in the West

Cincinnati Landmark’s Incline Theater is a leap of faith

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click to enlarge Incline Theater
Incline Theater

The hit Broadway musical The Producers is off and running this week, presented by Cincinnati Landmark Productions. It’s the story of a pair of hucksters who raise a boatload of money to stage “the worst play ever written,” an extravagant musical they’re confident will fail (its title: Springtime for Hitler) enabling them to make off with the funds they’ve raised. Much to their surprise and dismay, it’s a wacky hit.

Although Tim Perrino and Rodger Pille are schemers, failure is not on their radar. But creating a hit is definitely what they have in mind as they prepare to launch the Warsaw Federal Incline Theater — in fact, it seems they’ve had a lucky charm in their hip pockets for the past three years.

Perrino and Pille about to open the first dedicated legitimate theater built in Cincinnati in two decades (the Aronoff Center, a state-funded and publicly managed project that opened in 1995, is the most recent). Miraculously, it’s been accomplished with a minimum of political wrangling and a maximum of good will as it brings a significant attraction to the redevelopment of East Price Hill.

The Incline Theater’s location, West Eighth Street and Matson Place, has special significance for Perrino, Cincinnati Landmark Productions’ founder and executive artistic director. The Incline Theater is across Eighth Street from the home in which his grandfather lived until 1992; in fact, Perrino’s parents lived there, too, when he was born.

“It’s my old stomping grounds, the corner store where I could buy penny candy and put it on my grandma’s charge,” he says. “It was the site of the old Price Hill Incline, where we played amongst the ruins. This is like coming home.”

Today, the theater stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the long-popular Primavista Restaurant as well as the two-year-old Incline Public House. And Cincinnati Landmark Productions’ project, which includes a city-funded parking garage, is a win-win for everyone involved.

So how did a couple of theater guys from a midsized nonprofit theater pull off this caper? Cincinnati Landmark Productions’ roots date back to 1982 when Perrino launched Cincinnati Young People’s Theatre, an annual summertime teen production of a musical at the Westwood Town Hall. In 1989, the organization took on the management and operation of the Showboat Majestic, where it offered wholesome summer entertainment for 23 seasons. In 2002, Perrino and his team took over the old Covedale Cinema on Glenway Avenue in West Price Hill, converting it into the Covedale Center for the Performing Arts, home to Cincinnati Young People’s Theatre as well as an ambitious annual season of musicals and appealing comedies.

In 2012, the year the Covedale marked its 10th anniversary, Perrino and Pille, a onetime teen performer who now manages communications and fundraising, decided it was time to step away from the Showboat. “It was increasingly difficult to produce theater on the river,” Pille says. “It was hard on a little thin-walled vessel that was 93 years old.”

In a strategic planning session, Perrino, Pille and others knew they didn’t want to go back to being a one-venue theater company. “We knew how to operate two theaters very well, so we said, ‘Let’s keep our eyes open for the next great opportunity.’ ” One day later, as fate would have it, they learned that a development deal for a medical office building in the Incline District had fallen through.

“We reached out to the landowners involved in that development and said, ‘Sorry about the deal, but what would you think about a theater in that space?,’ ” Perrino says. “The fact that they replied within five minutes was an early indication that we had a great idea.” Within a month, with the approval of Cincinnati Landmark Productions’ board, staff began to study the feasibility and create early designs for a theater on the site. In June 2012, they publicly announced their intentions at a meeting of the East Price Hill Improvement Association.

Over the next 12 months, the Cincinnati Development Fund and PNC Bank committed New Markets Tax Credits to the Incline Theater project, and the Cincinnati Recreation Commission agreed to partner with Cincinnati Landmark Productions, combining its $4.2 million Price Hill Rec Center with the Incline Theater project.

After the summer 2013 season, Cincinnati Landmark Productions announced it would not renew its contract to operate and maintain the Showboat. Near the end of the year, the city of Cincinnati earmarked a $2-million grant for Cincinnati Landmark Productions to build — and subsequently operate — a parking garage as part of the project. The property was purchased by year’s end.

Early in 2014, it was announced that Warsaw Federal had secured naming rights for the theater. The savings and loan, founded in 1893, has been a cornerstone of the Price Hill neighborhood for more than a century. “When we started having conversations about the naming sponsor of the venue, Warsaw Federal certainly jumped to the top of our list,” Pille says. “It has roots, like Tim’s, right here in the neighborhood.”

Perrino chimes in that he’s lost track of how many people have said to him, “Oh, that’s tremendous. I’ve worked for them. I’ve known that savings and loan for all these years.”

In April 2014, the state of Ohio awarded a capital grant of $550,000 to the project, making the almost $6-million effort an absolute reality. About $3.7 million has gone into building the new theater, and the cost of the parking garage for 100 cars came in at $2.2 million. (This is in addition to 97 existing parking spaces that serve the restaurants and residents of the Queen’s Tower apartments.)

“We wanted to connect the Incline Theater with downtown and the urban core,” Pille says. “Our all-glass lobby view looks directly into downtown. You’ll always feel connected to the core, which we think will enable us to draw a little bit further east.”

The project broke ground on Sept. 16, 2014, and it’s proceeded like clockwork — on time and on budget — toward this week’s opening of The Producers. Audiences will be entertained in a 220-seat venue that is anticipated to offer performances 120 nights annually. Following The Producers (June 3-21), the “Summer Classics Season” — shows Perrino calls “Showboaty,” designed to appeal to audiences that frequented the Majestic — will offer two more musicals, 1776 (July 8-26), the story of America’s birth, and 9 to 5 (Aug. 12-30), an entertainment by Dolly Parton about working women. Perrino has a keen sense of the programming formula that will appeal: Seventy-two percent of the summer season was already sold through subscriptions before single tickets were made available.

“The response for subscriptions has been through the roof,” Pille says. “We have more than 300 ZIP codes in our patron base, and that has been the case for several years. We draw from all over the Tristate.”

“We’re over 93 percent now,” says Perrino, meaning that some eager patrons will be turned away from shows at the Incline this summer. But that’s a great problem to have. He’s quick to mention that the District Series, a new season of offerings, will be offered at the Incline starting in September. “We have established a fairly specific brand of theater at the Showboat and the Covedale — great big Broadway musicals and comedies,” Perrino explains. “The Incline is a smaller venue — certainly a much more intimate experience visually and physically — so you’re going to have a much different experience than at the Showboat or the Covedale.”

Perrino has assembled the District Series to reach out to a broader audience. “We’ll still run the Covedale full tilt,” Perrino says, “so there’s no reason to compete in the fall-winter-spring season by having the same brand of theater at the Incline. We’re looking for audiences we might not have reached in the past, both in terms of the artists who perform with us as well as the audiences who come and enjoy our theaters. That means much broader content, more mature content at times, more modern and contemporary shows.”

The District Series will offer William Mastrosimone’s searing drama Extremities (Sept. 20-Oct. 18), the Rock musical Rent (Dec. 2-20), the puppet-filled comic musical for mature audiences Avenue Q (Feb. 17-March 6, 2016) and Glengarry Glen Ross (April 6-24, 2016), David Mamet’s taut drama about real estate salesmen. (Those productions are distinctly different from the Covedale’s more mainstream, family-friendly fare, including four musicals — A Chorus Line, Mary Poppins, She Loves Me and Brigadoon — and two comedies, Ken Ludwig’s Fox on the Fairway and Neil Simon’s Chapter Two.)

Perrino is excited for the potential impact the Incline Theater can have. “This is a growing, exciting opportunity for performing artists. Cincinnati has a tremendous base of professionally trained and experienced singers, dancers, actors, directors, choreographers, stage managers, musicians and so on,” he says. “We already write more than 200 artist contracts per year, and that number will certainly grow as we put on more shows than ever before — plus concerts and special events at this new, year-round venue.”

Perrino imagines the Incline Theater will redefine East Price Hill as a destination. “We expect 30,000 people will attend performances here by 2016,” he says. “They’ll see a neighborhood on the rise that’s attractive for new businesses, with hardy housing stock and a panoply of good neighbors. It’s only four minutes from downtown — a great place to live, work, play.”

Doug Ridenour, president at Federal Equipment Company and the head of Cincinnati Landmark Productions’ board, echoes Perrino’s optimism. “When someone from miles away sees an exciting show in a neighborhood — maybe where their preconceived notions of said neighborhood aren’t too positive — they might go away impressed, changed, willing to return, willing to think differently about the opportunities that abound around this new venue,” Ridenour says. “Look at the Incline Public House, a beautiful, two-year-old restaurant directly across the street from our theater. It has two-hour waits on most nights, even after they expanded their patio seating. It’s the proof that this community is attracting people from all over and that new business there will succeed.”

Ridenour admits the Incline Theater project had the occasional skeptic at the start. “But once they saw that our intentions were honorable, that we would keep everyone informed on a continuous basis and the theater would be good for our neighbors, those skeptics have become very vocal supporters.”

Perrino, ever the enthusiast and cheerleader, says, “I can’t go anywhere within the I-275 loop and not be asked about this project. From within and without the neighborhood, people are looking forward to a new, instant landmark that will bring them back to their old neighborhood or bring them to what is, for them, a new neighborhood.”

It’s been a leap of faith for Cincinnati Landmark Productions to make the Warsaw Federal Incline Theater a reality, but a reality it is. Other theaters are looking to East Price Hill to learn how an arts organization from Cincinnati’s supposedly uncultured West Side has pulled this off. It’s a feat that The Producers’ Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom could only imagine. ©

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